Tamar And Yosef

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



by Yonatan Grossman

Immediately following the sale of Yosef by his brothers we encounter the story of Yehuda and Tamar. This episode in fact breaks the flow of the story of Yosef. At the conclusion of the sale we read, "And the Midianites sold him to the Egyptians, to Potiphar - Pharaoh's chamberlain, captain of the guard." The narrative returns to this point immediately after the episode of Yehuda and Tamar - "And Yosef was carried down to Egypt, and he was bought by Potiphar, chamberlain of Pharaoh - captain of the guard, an Egyptian, from the hand of the Ishmaelites who had carried him down there." (39:1)

For some reason the Torah finds it necessary to interrupt the story and tell us about Yehuda's marriage to a Canaanite woman, the death of the two sons born to him from this marriage, the rejection of his third son as a candidate to marry Tamar, widow of his eldest son, his daughter-in-law's seduction of him, and the heroic conclusion - Yehuda's admission of his actions, which saves Tamar from death. At first glance, this story is in no way connected to that of the sale of Yosef, and its position in the text seems rather strange.

Closer inspection of the story of Yehuda and Tamar reveals that the Torah does in fact hint at some connection between these two events, not only by virtue of their juxtaposition, but also in the language and literary devices used. There are several expressions which serve quite clearly to connect these two episodes: a. The opening of the Tamar story, "And it was at that time," hints at a connection between what was recounted previously and what we are about to read. In general such an expression indicates a thematic connection, over and above a chronological one. b. The story of Yehuda begins, "And Yehuda went down (va-yered) from his brothers," while concerning Yosef we read, "And Yosef was carried down (hurad) to Egypt... to where they carried him down." (39:1) c. Yehuda promises Tamar, "I shall send a kid goat" for the purposes of identification. In the story of Yosef's sale, too, we read of a similar dispatch: "And they slaughtered a goat and immersed the goat in blood, and they sent the striped coat to their father" (37:31-2) - for the purposes of identifying Yosef. d. The two previous comparisons are in fact mentioned only by virtue of their reliance on the parallel already pointed out by Chazal in Bereishit Rabba. After the brothers send the bloodied coat to their father, "They said: This we found; recognize, then, that it is the coat of your son." Tamar uses exactly the same words in presenting to Yehuda "his seal, his cord and his staff:" "And she said, recognize, then, to whom this seal and this cord and this staff belong." This expression appears nowhere else in the Torah, and since it appears twice in such close succession, and in a similar context (i.e., identification of a person), this unusual expression clearly indicates a connection between the two episodes in which it appears.

Thus, it appears that we are meant to read the story of Yehuda and Tamar against the backdrop of and within the story of the sale of Yosef. This conclusion arises both from the position of the story as well as from the literary allusions which it contains.

What, then, is the connection between these stories?

Let us return to the story of the sale. When Yosef reaches his brothers, who are shepherding in Dotan, they plan to kill him. In the description of the discussion among the brothers we may distinguish three distinct voices, three different opinions offered with regard to Yosef and his future: a. "(Each) one to his brother" (19): The Torah uses this expression when it is irrelevant who the speaker is, and he thus remains anonymous. In other words, the first voice is that of the brothers generally, without any specific names being mentioned. This opinion maintains: "Let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits, and we will say, 'A wild animal ate him,' and let us see what becomes of his dreams." b. "And Reuven heard, and saved him from their hands:" The second voice heard in the field court deciding Yosef's fate is represented by Reuven. He hopes to save Yosef: "And he said: let us not take a life." His suggestion is to place Yosef in the pit without killing him, but the Torah informs us that his secret intention was "in order to save him from their hands, to return him to his father." (21-22). c. "And Yehuda said to his brothers:" This is the third voice - Yehuda. He seems to align himself with Reuven: "What shall we gain by killing our brother?" As an alternative he suggests selling Yosef as a slave to Egypt.

It seems to me that if we were asked to categorize the various positions offered in this debate in order of their moral value, we would claim that Reuven - who wants to save Yosef and return him to his father - would rate first place, while Yehuda - who at least opposes murder, and suggests merely selling him as a slave - would rank second, followed by the rest of the brothers ("each to his brother"), on the lowest moral rung, who wish to kill their own brother.

However, at second glance, we find that this categorization is not entirely accurate.

It is true that the suggestion made by "each man to his brother" is terrible and shocking, but these words are clearly spoken out of the terrible anger which the brothers harbor against Yosef. He dreams dreams which imply domination and royalty, and gaily shares them with the entire family. The great jealousy and anger of the brothers warps their judgement, to the point where they even contemplate killing their brother. It is important to take note of what the brothers call Yosef: "Behold, this dreamer comes ... and let us see what will become of his dreams." Yosef is termed "the dreamer," indicating that this is what leads them to their terrible suggestion of murder. The brothers momentarily forget that the victim in question is "Yosef," that he is a "brother." They focus exclusively on his galling characteristic of being a "dreamer."

In contrast to the general company of the brothers, Yehuda speaks on the basis of cool and considered thought. He is aware throughout that the victim in question is their brother. He does not forget this fact in the heat and jealousy and hatred of the moment - as is evidenced by the emphasis of his words, as recorded in the Torah: "And Yehuda said to HIS BROTHERS: What shall we gain by killing OUR BROTHER and covering his blood? Let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and our hands will not be upon him, for HE IS OUR BROTHER, OUR FLESH. And THE BROTHERS listened to him."

In each sentence, the Torah emphasizes the theme of brotherhood: Yehuda speaks to his brothers (the opening and closing) about Yosef, their brother (middle two statements). While the brothers, in their fury, lose sight of who it is that approaches them, perceiving only "the dreamer," Yehuda is perfectly aware that Yosef is their brother; nevertheless, his intention is not - like Reuven - to save him from them, but rather to sell him as a slave to Egypt. It must be remembered that in biblical times there were no "workers' rights," and the clear consequence of this suggestion was not only that Yosef was going to suffer his whole life, but that in all probability he would not survive the hardship and would die in Egypt. Technically, Yehuda could claim, "Our hands will not be upon him," but his alternative is no more attractive: he will be overcome by the hand of others. (Interestingly, the Torah continues to employ this imagein its description of how Divine Providence accompanies Yosef down to Egypt, and ultimately we read concerning Potiphar that "he left everything that was his in Yosef's HAND," and concerning the chief jailer that "the chief jailer saw no wrong in HIS HAND.")

Yehuda, then, in contrast to the other brothers, cannot claim "temporary insanity." His base suggestion is aired despite his clear knowledge that he is taabout "our brother, our flesh."

One of the most surprising elements of the story of the sale of Yosef is the lack of Divine comment or response to the actions of the brothers. It is true that at the conclusion of the story Yosef tells his brothers, "God sent me before you in order to preserve life" (45:5), but clearly from the point of view of the brothers they are guilty and will be held accountable. The Torah generally emphasizes God's reactions to human acts on earth, and in this story this aspect is glaringly absent.

I believe that the story of Yehuda and Tamar is to be seen as a direct reaction to the actions of the brothers, focused specifically on Yehuda, as we have demonstrated. In general, we tend to concentrate on the relationship between Yehuda and Tamar, forgetting the greater tragedy which introduced this episode: the fact that Yehuda's two sons have died. The Torah emphasizes that they did not die a natural death, but rather that "God slew" them.

For a person to have two of his sons die one after the other is a fearsome and terrible punishment. The Torah hints to us that this was a direct result of the sale of Yosef by placing the story immediately after Yosef is carried down to Egypt, and in some special expressions which characterize these two parshiot specifically. Yehuda's two sons die, while "Two sons were born to Yosef before the years of famine began" (41:50), and the comparison appears quite clear: He who sold loses his two children, while he who was sold has two sons born to him.

This is reminiscent of the law pertaining to a thief, who is obligated to repay twice the value of what he stole. Yehuda "stole" Yosef and sold him as a slave, and he ends up paying double - both his sons die, while the victim is repaid double - two sons are born to him.

Hints of this idea are to be found amidst the commentaries of Chazal. Rashi comments as follows: "Why is this story brought immediately after the other, such that the Torah interrupts the Torah of Yosef? In order to teach us that their esteem for him (Yehuda) dropped when they saw the anguish of their father. They said, 'You suggested that we sell him; had you suggested that we return him (alive to our father) we would have listened to you." (Compare Bereishit Rabba chapter 85:2).

Thus it seems that the brothers themselves perceived in the death of Yehuda's two sons some type of punishment for the sale of Yosef. This becomes clear in Reuven's later attempt to convince Yaakov that he should sent Binyamin with him down to Egypt. Reuven's statement seems harsh and excessive: "And Reuven said to his father, saying, 'Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Give him into my hands and I shall return him to you." (42:37) The Midrash comments on this surprising declaration (Bereishit Rabba, chapter 91:9), as quoted by Rashi: "This is an insane firstborn. He suggests that Yaakov kill his two sons - are they not Yaakov's children too?!" What is the real meaning of Reuven's strange suggestion?

In the context of our discussion, the issue is easier to understand. In the consciousness of the brothers, the death of Yehuda's two sons is the Divine reaction to their having cut Yosef off from his father. Yehuda is the representative accountable to God for the sale, and he is the one who bears the tragic results. Now that Reuven is begging his father to send Binyamin with him, what he is actually saying is that he undertakes to bring him back safely - otherwise he is prepared to accept upon himself the known punishment for cutting off one of Rachel's sons from Yaakov, the death of his own two sons. Reuven does not mean that Yaakov should kill his two sons if he does not return Binyamin safely - that would indeed be insanity, as the Midrash points out. Reuven seeks to further reinforce his promise to bring Binyamin back, and for the purposes of emphasis he makes mention once again of the punishment which visits the person responsible for cutting off Yaakov's beloved son. (Reuven here may even be expressing his own repressed anger at Yehuda over the sale of Yosef.)

In this context it is quite ironic and saddening to see how Yehuda now ascends the stage, presents himself before Yaakov and attempts to convince him to send Binyamin. He cannot, like Reuven, suggest his two sons as "hostages" since they have already died, in a similar context. Yehuda is left with no choice but to put his own life on the line as a guarantee for Binyamin's safety: "I shall stand surety for him; from my hand shall you require him. If I fail to bring him back to you and present him before you, I will have sinned before you forever." (43:9)

Thus Yehuda is punished for the sale of Yosef, and his two sons, Er and Onen, die. But the story continues to unfold, and within the narrative itself we see some type of penance and correction by Yehuda for his actions.

Yehuda pronounces explicit judgement on Tamar, his daughter-in-law, for her suspected prostitution: "Take her to be burned." Now Yehuda faces a most difficult personal dilemma: It is he himself who has pronounced such a harsh sentence without first investigating and clarifying the circumstances of the case, and in a few moments an innocent woman is going to be put to death as a result of his hasty judgement. Will Yehuda find the inner strength necessary to admit to his mistake? Even the mere fact that he has failed to give his third son to Tamar is presented as a fault on his part ("For I did not give her to Shela, my son"), but this problem is clearly secondary in relation to the crisis which has now arisen - an innocent victim about to be executed as a result of his sentence.

Perhaps Yehuda now remembers his previous sentence, which also pertained to a family member and also concerned a death sentence - or at least sale as a slave; we cannot know what outcome exactly he had in mind. But now, in this similar situation, the leader of the brothers assumes a new psychological position. He faces up to his mistake and announces, "She has been more righteous than I."

This process of teshuva on the part of Yehuda cannot bring back Yosef, but it does at least prevent Tamar from being put to death unjustly. Now Yehuda has reached a position in which he deserves some compensation for the death of his two sons: "And it happened at the time that she gave birth that behold, there were twins in her womb." Tamar, who was saved thanks to Yehuda's admission, bears him two sons, and Yehuda now has some measure of comfort for the two sons, now dead, born of his Canaanite wife.

(For further study: It is interesting to compare the story of Yehuda and Tamar with the story which immediately follows it - the events of Yosef's stay in Potiphar's house. Here, too, we read of an attempt at sexual misconduct with which one of Yaakov's sons must deal. Here, too, Yosef leaves a type of "surety" [against his will he ends up leaving behind his garments] in the hands of a woman, just as Yehuda left his seal in the hands of Tamar. In both places the woman concerned uses the personal seal as proof of the identity of the man who was involved in the incident. In Yosef's case, too, sentence is passed in a hasty fashion without proper investigation ("And Yosef's master took him and put him in prison"); a sentence which does a certain person a grave injustice. Is this perhaps another expression of the tension between Yehuda and Yosef; tension of which, in the context of both stories, both brothers seem to be unaware?).